Blog Space of Rev. Adrian J. Pratt B.D, pastor at Mount Hebron Presbyterian Church, Ellicott City, MD

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

CHRISTMAS DAY – Luke 2: 1-7

In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be enrolled. This was the first enrollment, when Quirinius was governor of Syria.  And all went to be enrolled, each to his own city.  And Joseph also went up from Galilee, from the city of Nazareth, to Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David,  to be enrolled with Mary, his betrothed, who was with child.  And while they were there, the time came for her to be delivered. And she gave birth to her first-born son and wrapped Him in swaddling cloths, and laid Him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.

As we finally arrive ‘Around the Manger’ I wish you and yours the blessing of God. Our journey has led us to the stable in Bethlehem and we celebrate the birth of the Savior. This passage from Luke is maybe the most familiar of them all. Do not allow its familiarity to detract from its wonder.

Some years ago I worked as a part-time chaplain in one of Europe’s largest Children’s hospitals -  Alder Hey in Liverpool. In so many ways Christmas was a special time. The wonderful staff and supporters at the hospital put in endless time and thought trying to make the season special for those who were patients ... particularly because, in the case of some of those most seriously ill, there would not be many Christmas’s that their short lives would celebrate. The following poem was my Christmas contribution to the hospital newsletter and marks the conclusion of this series of meditations.

SOMETHING ABOUT A CHILD

It’s got something to do with a baby hasn’t it?
And some shepherds and angels and Mary and a star.
Not to mention the Wise Men.

Or is it something about presents and Xmas Trees,
Snow, sledges, turkey, Santa Claus and Walt Disney?

Or is it little more than an excuse,
For over indulgent alcohol consumption and a day off work,
For the shops to make considerable profit?

Or is it time for people to forget themselves
And think about others?

One Christmas morning
I looked into the eyes of a child
As they unwrapped the gifts left by Santa.

I felt tears forming in my eyes.

Because no matter how much I analyzed Christmas
There was something about the joy in those eyes
That could never be cradled with words.

Jesus,
When He grew up,
Was once heard to say;
“I assure you that whoever does not receive
The Kingdom of God like a child
Will never enter it”

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

CHRISTMAS EVE – Luke 2: 15-20 – “Let’s Go…”

When the angels went away from them into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, "Let us go over to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has made known to us." And they went with haste, and found Mary and Joseph, and the babe lying in a manger.  And when they saw it they made known the saying which had been told them concerning this child;  and all who heard it wondered at what the shepherds told them. But Mary kept all these things, pondering them in her heart. And the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them. 


In order for the shepherds to return to their fields ‘glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen’ it was obviously necessary for them to physically travel somewhere. Hopefully today you will have the opportunity to go someplace where you can be with others to celebrate – through a service of worship – the birth of Jesus Christ.

In this era, when individuality is so over-stated that even spirituality is seen in purely personal terms, it is worth reminding ourselves that the first Christmas was a community experience. There are those who tell me that they don’t have to go to church to be Christians. Not one of them has yet shown me a passage in the Bible that in any way supports this position. Christian faith has always been a communal experience.

The shepherds did not individually pursue their spiritual journey. As a group one of them said, ‘Let us go and see’ and they all went and saw. Whilst times of personal devotion are important they do not remove from us the responsibility of corporately worshiping and serving God together through active participation in faith communities.

‘Going to Church’ is not what makes us Christians. We worship together because that is what God calls us to do. We meet around a table laid with bread and wine because that’s where Jesus invites to meet Him. We serve together because we are each individual parts of the ‘Body of Christ’ and we need each other in order to realize those things that God’s Holy Spirit is calling us to do.

I’ve been involved with church folk long enough to realize that God has a real sense of humor in calling such incompatible people together as a way of expressing eternal love. But ‘call us together’ God surely will. And what a strange group we can be!

Think about it though.  It was a strange crew that gathered around the manger. A Carpenter. A Peasant Girl. Shepherds. Wise Men. Animals. It was an even stranger crew that Jesus eventually called to be His twelve disciples.

But none of them would ever be disciples if they hadn’t responded to the call… “Let’s Go!"

PRAYER
Lord, We thank You… I think… that You call us to be disciples together with others. It’s not that we don’t like other people, it’s just that they aren’t like You… not so tolerant and understanding… they have needs and concerns that get in the way… of all our wonderful plans. What’s that Lord? Love my neighbor?  See Your love in them? Look at others through the eyes of Jesus? I’m going to need some help here, Lord! What’s that? That’s why You came! O.K. Lord… let’s go. AMEN.

Monday, December 22, 2014

DAY TWENTY THREE – Luke 2: 8-14 – Shepherds and Songs

And in that region there were shepherds out in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. 9 And an angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were filled with fear.  And the angel said to them, "Be not afraid; for behold, I bring you good news of a great joy which will come to all the people;  for to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.  And this will be a sign for you: you will find a babe wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger."  And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying, "Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among men with whom He is pleased!"

We are now on familiar Christmas territory. Shepherds and singing angels are such an indispensable part of the Christmas drama that it is hard to imagine the season without them. For many of us who were the wrong gender to be Mary, not cute enough to be angels or clever enough to be Joseph, it was with the help of a dressing gown and a t-towel wrapped around our heads that we were first exposed to the Christmas story as we played shepherds in an annual Nativity play.

What a great way to learn a story! By being part of it. Having on numerous occasions been the one responsible for coordinating the annual Christmas Play, I well appreciate what a nightmare it can seem. But... every year…it seems we witness the annual miracle of the Christmas Play all working out just fine on performance day. Who can tell what sort of impression it may be leaving on young lives?   Young lives – that – when given the opportunity – often shine in ways we had never anticipated.

No celebration of Christmas seems complete with the music of Christmas filling the air. Even though some of the stores seem to have started playing Christmas Music back in October, it is hard to match the sing-ability and warmth of feeling that is expressed through the melodies of the carols.

In my own life though, I’m aware that for many years I just went through the motions of Christmas and enjoyed the songs – without really understanding what it was all about. It was only after I had made a decision to be an active disciple of Jesus Christ that the words of the carols started to come alive for me and the Nativity story came part of my own spiritual journey.

To go forward we have to dig deep. We have to move beyond the sentimentality and ‘good-feelings’ and discover that at the heart of Christmas is the startling account of God’s salvation coming to our world in the most unlikely way.

As we have seen, Christmas is not just about babies and shepherds and songs and wise men. It’s about the reality of God invading our territory, refusing to be left out of the picture.

Enjoy the Nativity Plays. Enjoy the Songs.
But don’t let the truth expressed through them pass you by.

PRAYER
Lord, it is a wonderful time of the year. Music fills the air and children‘s faces are shining brightly. But don’t let us Lord, be so blinded by what’s on the surface, that we never get to the heart of the matter. Through these things You are calling us to discipleship. Help us to follow.  AMEN.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

DAY TWENTY TWO – Hebrews 1: 1-4 – The Son

In many and various ways God spoke of old to our fathers by the prophets;  but in these last days He has spoken to us by a Son, whom He appointed the heir of all things, through whom also He created the world.  He reflects the glory of God and bears the very stamp of His nature, upholding the universe by His word of power. When He had made purification for sins, He sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high, having become as much superior to angels as the name He has obtained is more excellent than theirs.

The author of the Book of Hebrews takes John’s idea of Jesus as the ‘Logos’ a step further. He reaffirms that Jesus is the One whom through the world was created and One who bore the unmistakable stamp of God’s character within His life. As John Wayne, playing the part of a Roman soldier standing at the Cross declares, at the end of one of Hollywood’s Gospel epics ‘Truly this man was the Son of God’. (Try and say that with your best John Wayne voice and it sounds all the more impressive).

For the author of Hebrews the story didn’t begin with the birth and it certainly didn’t end at the Cross. Jesus did not come from out of nowhere, but was born as the fulfillment of the hopes and dreams of generations of  prophets and faithful servants of God.

After His death and Resurrection, it wasn’t a case of ‘Game Over’ but ‘He sat down at the Right Hand of the Majesty on High’.  This exalted position He occupied was even greater than that of the angels.

Maybe some of you recall ‘Charlie’s Angels’ - the T.V. Show (and more recently the movies) about three glamorous female detectives who save the world from being taken over by wicked forces. Impressive though Charlie’s Angels were, they remained at the beck and call of the mysterious Charlie, who at the end of the day was the Boss.

At the time the book of Hebrews was written angels certainly weren’t perceived as glamorous detectives. Yet there were those around who thought of them as ‘Go-betweens’ between themselves and God and whom elevated their status to that of  ‘Demi-gods’.

This passage reminds us that God has given us only one true Savior. That there is nothing else and nobody else quite like Jesus. Even the angels bow down and worshiped in His presence. Only He is seated at God’s right hand. Thanks be to God for the most excellent gift of His Son!

PRAYER
Lord, We celebrate today the excellence of Jesus. We recall again John 3:16.  That You so loved the world that You gave Your only Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life. A gift beyond words. AMEN.

Saturday, December 20, 2014

DAY TWENTY ONE – John 1:1-5, 14 – The Word

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God.  All things were made through Him, and without Him nothing was made that was made. In Him was life, and the life was the light of men. And the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not comprehend it.

And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld His glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth.


We’ve looked at how the other Biblical authors begin their gospels.  Mark begins with John the Baptist’s ministry; Luke and Matthew with narratives of the birth of Jesus.  When we turn to John, he wants to take us somewhere completely new. John doesn’t give us a whimsical tale of events involving a newly-wed family in some obscure corner of the globe.  John spokes of how Jesus was a part of the Creative process that created the universe!

It’s an interesting exercise to read the John verses given above and replace the phrase ‘the Word’ with the name of ‘Jesus’ (Try it!). It’s no wonder that the Doctrine of the Trinity didn’t take long to develop as a core belief of Christianity. The idea that Jesus was both fully God,  yet fully human, appears time and time again throughout John’s writings, and in so many other passages of the New Testament.

However, replacing ‘the Word’ with ‘Jesus’ does not paint the picture John wants us to see.  In Greek ‘the Word’ is ‘Logos’. Without going into great depth as to the semantic background of the term, it is sufficient to say that ‘the Word‘ - ‘Logos’ -  represented the divine principle of life that permeated all things; an active component of God’s creative and revealing work.

Fans of Star Wars movies will be familiar with Luke Skywalker battling against the dark forces. His mentors tell him, ‘The Force be with you’. If he can only tap into this power source that was buzzing through the stratosphere then he will be victorious.

John seems to be saying that the greatness of Jesus, was not his ability to tap into the ‘force’, but the fact that He was ‘The Force’ - that in Jesus we truly encounter the creative work and power of God. That the little baby formed in Mary’s womb was Lord of the Cosmos. That the Jesus who suffered and died and rose again reflected the Divine Glory like no other because He was God ‘incognito’ - God ‘in-carn-ate’ (meaning in the flesh) - God in our midst.

May the Force (Of Jesus Love) Be with You!

PRAYER
Lord, We thank You that our faith in You has a cosmic dimension to it. Sometimes our world is so small. Help us today to be aware of Your Presence and aware of Your encompassing love as it surrounds our lives.  May the force of the love incarnate birthed in Mary be with us this day. AMEN
.

Friday, December 19, 2014

DAY TWENTY – Luke 1: 39-45 – Jumpin’ Wombs!

 Now Mary arose in those days and went into the hill country with haste, to a city of Judah,  and entered the house of Zacharias and greeted Elizabeth.  And it happened, when Elizabeth heard the greeting of Mary, that the babe leaped in her womb; and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit. Then she spoke out with a loud voice and said, "Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb!  "But why is this granted to me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me?  "For indeed, as soon as the voice of your greeting sounded in my ears, the babe leaped in my womb for joy. "Blessed is she who believed, for there will be a fulfillment of those things which were told her from the Lord."

This passage details for us the encounter between Mary and her kinswoman Elizabeth. Mary has just been visited by an angel and can’t wait to tell somebody what’s been going on. Who better to share that news with than Elizabeth – whose pregnancy had also come about in unusual circumstances?

As soon as Mary greets Elizabeth, Elizabeth’s baby (John the Baptist) starts jumping in her womb. This prompts Elizabeth to speak out (under the influence of the Holy Spirit) about how the baby that Mary was carrying was going to be even more special than the one that was dancing in her own belly.

Being of the totally wrong gender I shall never experience anything dancing in my womb. Yet I’m sure  many of us can recall some moment – maybe many moons ago – when we felt there was magic in the air – and experienced somewhere inside of us the deep delight of anticipation. Could be we were waiting for Santa to appear – or maybe it was a birthday surprise – or a trip to the Zoo (If you happen to like zoos!)

Whatever it was, many of us can recall some bubble of excitement that we once experienced in anticipation of some great event. Surely there should also be room on our spiritual journey for ‘Anticipation Moments’.  Maybe we should take the time out to consider what that the Scriptures teach us about the future blessings of God’s Kingdom – and do so in such a way as it sets our insides dancing!

Now I’m not suggesting that you immediately cast cares to the wind and start dancing the Highland Fling on the kitchen table (although if that’s how contemplating the future of God’s Kingdom makes you feel then don’t let me stop you.)

Rather my suggestion is that we spend just enough time, at some point in our day, to remember that at the end of all things God is going to put everything right with the world. To allow that thought to seep into our souls in such a way as a little bubble of excitement begins to develop somewhere deep inside of us. It could be that little bubble will keep us in step as we make our personal journeys from the womb to beyond the tomb.

PRAYER
Lord, Help us somewhere along the way to recapture that bubble of childhood anticipation that the expectation of wondrous things once gave to us. As we look around us we don’t always see much to get excited about. When we consider Your promises of Glory and future blessing surely that should cause us to rejoice! AMEN.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

DAY NINETEEN – Luke 1: 46-55 – Magnificat

And Mary said: "My soul magnifies the Lord,  And my spirit has rejoiced in God my Savior.  For He has regarded the lowly state of His maidservant; For behold, henceforth all generations will call me blessed. For He who is mighty has done great things for me, And holy is His name.  And His mercy is on those who fear Him From generation to generation.  He has shown strength with His arm; He has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts.  He has put down the mighty from their thrones, And exalted the lowly.  He has filled the hungry with good things, And the rich He has sent away empty.  He has helped His servant Israel, In remembrance of His mercy,  As He spoke to our fathers, To Abraham and to his seed forever."

In this beautiful passage – known as the ‘Magnificat’ - Mary responds with a song of joy to God’s calling. For a moment, all the imponderables, the doubts and the worries are cast aside, and she rejoices from the depth of her being in what God has done for her.

It can be so tremendously enriching to our spiritual journey to take the time out to rejoice – unashamedly – in where God has led us – so far. It’s not that we have already arrived, or are already all that we could be, but simply an acknowledgment that God is good and that God’s goodness has touched our lives.

Mary’s song rejoices in a God who turns everything upside down. Scatters the proud, pulls the mighty from their thrones, fills the hungry with good things and regards the ‘lowly state of His hand-maiden’. Mary rejoices in the God who turns things around, sorts out the truth from the trash, and clears the whole house.

My mind wanders to John Newton, the slave trader who became a slave for a while himself, but after his redemption penned these powerful words;

“Amazing Grace, How sweet the sound
That saved a wretch like me
I once was lost but now I’m found
Was blind but now I see”


As with Mary, he strikes a note of unashamed joy in rejoicing in the way God’s salvation has turned things around in his own life. Take time out to thank God for all that God has turned around in your own life due to the influence amazing grace.

Be creative! Write your own ‘Magnificat’ or attempt to sing Mary’s words to what ever tune comes to mind. Or failing that, sing ‘Amazing Grace’ to the tune of ‘Gilligan's Island’ - if that’s what it takes to put a smile on your face. Sing about the turn around and it might just turn you around!

PRAYER
Lord, it is easy to forget how far along the road we have come with You and how much You have blessed us along the way. Not today! Right now I want to say thank You, not because I’ve arrived, but because You have got me this far! It really is amazing what grace can do! AMEN and AMEN and AMEN.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

DAY EIGHTEEN – Luke 1: 34 – 39 – Doubts and Reassurance

And Mary said to the angel, "How shall this be, since I have no husband?" And the angel said to her, "The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy, the Son of God.  And behold, your kinswoman Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month with her who was called barren.  For with God nothing will be impossible."  And Mary said, "Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord; let it be to me according to Your word." And the angel departed from her.  In those days Mary arose and went with haste into the hill country, to a city of Judah.

Having made the claim that Mary’s strength came through her faith in God, I’m not suggesting that she never had any doubts. In fact the words of verse 34 have her questioning the angel, “How shall this be?” A fair question in the light of what seemed an impossibility. Yet God was in the business of the unexpected, for verse 37 reads, ‘With God nothing will be impossible.

As Christmas draws nearer – and all this talk of angels, dreams and virgin births becomes mingled with sugar plum fairies, Santa Claus and Pepsi Cola – thoughts of the impossible can be elevated, to such a position that they become so far removed from the fabric of our every day life, that they become virtually irrelevant.

Discussions on topics such as ‘Faith in the Virgin Birth’ sometimes take on a similar tone to those  of ‘Belief in U.F.O’s’ or ‘The existence of the Loch Ness Monster’. Whilst not denying these are intriguing questions, do they really have an impact on the way we go about our daily lives?

If the Christmas story is about God coming down to earth then how about our faith also coming down to earth? It seems that we all have ‘impossibilities’ that we face on a daily basis.

That ‘impossible’ person that we just don’t get along with. That ‘impossible’ situation that we have got ourselves into – that maybe the result of our own stupidity. That ‘un-resolvable’ conflict in which one is locked with another. That ‘impossible’ gap we are seeking to fill, the gulf we cannot bridge, the darkness that seems to deep to penetrate.

It is about such situations as these that we need to hear the Holy Spirit whisper to our hearts, ‘For with God nothing will be impossible’. For then we may find the reassurance that came to Mary. “You have found  favor with the Lord.’

PRAYER
Lord, we do indeed face situations which seem impossible for us to deal with. Thank You that You know about each one of them.. and are favored towards helping us through them. Help us not to be ‘so heavenly minded that we are no earthly use’... but to have a trust in You that helps us through the trials of each day. AMEN.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

DAY SEVENTEEN – Luke 1: 30 – 33 – The Throne of David

And the angel said to her, "Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a Son, and you shall call His name Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High; and the Lord God will give to Him the throne of His father David, and He will reign over the house of Jacob for ever; and of His kingdom there will be no end."

Although Mary was deeply troubled by the angels greeting – Gabriel counteracts her anxiety with the simple phrase; ‘Do not be afraid.’

A favorite fictional work of mine is the series by Douglas Adams – ‘The Hitch Hikers Guide to the Galaxy’. At one point he explains how ‘The Hitch Hikers Guide’ had become ‘the best-selling book in the whole universe’. The success is attributed to the fact that it has ‘DON’T PANIC’ written in big letters on the cover.

I can’t recall ever meeting a single person who didn’t worry about some thing. Worry can actually be a great motivator! There is though, obviously, a difference between allowing panic and fear to rule our lives and using out anxieties and apprehensions in a creative way.

It is not entirely a scholarly reflection to jump from a phrase that mentions ‘the throne of David’ to the story of David and Goliath – but I’m going to make it anyway. I can’t actually remember when I first heard of the little boy David’s confrontation with the Philistine Giant– but it’s a safe bet that Mary knew the story as well.

Little David is not worried by the size of the task ahead of him because of his faith in a God who was bigger than the troublesome situation that was paralyzing everybody else with fear.

In a similar fashion – Mary – who most commentators suggest was just a young girl – is not floored by the idea of God’s intervention in her life – because the fact that she has ‘found favor with God’ - assures her that whatever may come along – God was going to see her through it!

If God was going to do a great thing – then God was great enough to see that she was up to her part of it. Kind of simple really. But then... I have always had a sneaking suspicion that faith was meant to be that way. 

PRAYER

Lord, help me to discover a simple faith,
that trusts in You,
for the big things
and the little things in life. 
Thank You Lord.
AMEN.

Monday, December 15, 2014

DAY SIXTEEN– Luke 1 26-29 – Mary was greatly troubled

In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a city of Galilee named Nazareth,  to a virgin betrothed to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David; and the virgin's name was Mary. And he came to her and said, "Hail, O favored one, the Lord is with you!" But she was greatly troubled at the saying, and considered in her mind what sort of greeting this might be.

There is something incredibly right about Mary, the mother of Jesus, in the way she reacts when she hears a stranger greet her with the words, “Hail, O favored One, the Lord is with you!” We read, “She was greatly troubled at the saying, and considered in her mind what sort of greeting this might be.

These days we are bombarded with ads that tells us how fortunate we are to be in a position to purchase their product and mailings that tell us how incredibly lucky we are to have been chosen for a credit card with such a low interest rate. We do well to react to strangers who greet us with words of great promise with more than a little cynicism. We are right to ask, “Where’s the catch here?” As it has been said, “If it sounds to good to be true, it probably is!”

There is something deeply troubling about Christ’s coming to our world. It’s a deeply troubling thought that we have made such a mess of things that God needs to intervene in such a personal way. It’s a troubling thought that we, who are part of the problem, are called by God to be part of the solution. It is deeply troubling when Jesus calls us to rearrange our whole lives to make room for concepts that we hadn’t previously considered.

Maybe the most deeply troubling thing about the Christian message is that once we truly embrace it, God is never going to be off our case. That God treats our commitment so seriously that events may take unexpected turns, relationships may develop that we hadn’t expected and we may end up attempting things that had never even appeared in our dreams.

If Christ’s message has never deeply troubled us, then I challenge us to consider whether we have ever truly listened … or heard… or truly considered what is asked of those who walk the road of discipleship.

Mary hears a strangers greeting and is greatly concerned as to what the implications of being favored by God may turn out to be. Christ calls us to follow and promises us great joy and blessing. But... hold on…  think about it… what’s the catch?

PRAYER
Lord, Mary hesitated to welcome the strangers greeting.  Help us today to pause and consider the implications of being a disciple of Jesus. Help us to hear what You are asking of us, so that our response may be whole hearted! AMEN.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

DAY FIFTEEN– Matthew 1: 18-24 – Joseph’s Dream

 Now the birth of Jesus Christ took place in this way. When His mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child of the Holy Spirit; and her husband Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly.  But as he considered this, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, "Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary your wife, for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit;  she will bear a son, and you shall call His name Jesus, for He will save His people from their sins."  All this took place to fulfil what the Lord had spoken by the prophet:  "Behold, a virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and His name shall be called Emmanuel" (which means, God with us). When Joseph woke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; and took Mary as his wife.

Fifteen days into Advent and we’ve hardly mentioned what most of us consider the central bit of the Christmas story – namely the birth of Jesus. All that changes from here on. Matthew, after giving us the impressive family genealogy of Joseph, starts his narrative with the words “The birth of Jesus took place in this way”.

Approaching this story form a retrospective viewpoint, an awful lot hinges on Josephs ability to believe in the reality of a dream. Whilst Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist, has a waking close encounter with an angelic messenger, Joseph’s encounter comes during his sleeping hours. It is, nevertheless, equally forceful in it’s effect.

Dreams – as a communication from God – form an essential part of the biblical narrative. From Joseph’s namesake in the Old Testament, to the accounts of the growth of the early church in the book of Acts, there are numerous individuals who receive guidance from God through vivid dreams that impact their waking hours in dramatic ways.

Maybe this shouldn’t surprise us. Dreams are our minds way of sorting out the day. The importance of sleep is not simply rest but for the sake of our sanity. Our brains need a chance to recharge and refocus jut as much as our physical parts need to rejuvenate themselves through rest. Should it really surprise us then, that it is during this ‘resting-sorting-out’ process of our lives that God chooses to communicate?

It is of course necessary to discern the difference between dreams that are the result of too much caffeine or cheese after supper – and those which the Holy Spirit is prompting. Thankfully one of the gifts of the Holy Spirit is that of discernment!

So, as some eminent therapists will charge us a lot of money to tell us, we should listen to our dreams. Through them God may well be prompting us to discover something afresh about our spiritual journey. Whilst there remains the danger that we may confuse our dreams with the voice of God – there is also the chance that if we fail to listen, we may miss out on something really important.

Ask Joseph!

PRAYER
Lord, can You really speak to us through our sleeping moments as much as through our waking hours? If so, then help us to listen to our dreams – but with the discernment of Your Holy Spirit (and a fair dose of common sense) - that they may guide us. AMEN.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

DAY FOURTEEN– Luke 3: 15-16 – Burning the Chaff

As the people were in expectation, and all men questioned in their hearts concerning John, whether perhaps he were the Christ,  John answered them all, "I baptize you with water; but He who is mightier than I is coming, the thong of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie; He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire.

John made such an impression on people that a lot of them speculated as to whether or not he was the Messiah of Israelite hopes. “No” was his answer, “The one who I’m talking about? I’m just a shadow by comparison!”

One on the reasons that he gives for his comparable insignificance is that the Messiah, when He comes, is really going to sort things out. ‘The Message’ a transliteration of the New Testament, pictures John as saying, “He’s going to clean house – make a clean sweep of your lives. He’ll place everything true in it’s proper place before God; everything false He’ll put out with the trash to be burned”.

The coming of Christ to our world – indeed to our lives – forces us to points of decision. At its most basic the choice is between ‘Truth or Trash’. Applying that ‘truth or trash’ motif to our lives could be radical.

Think of it in terms of what you surround your life with, the values you hold dear, the relationships you pursue, the desires that motivate your life, and the compromises you are or are not prepared to make.

Or – even more up close and personal – think of it in terms of the words you speak, the books you read, the programs on television you like to watch, the internet sites you visit, the music you listen to – truth or trash?

It’s a sobering thought that, at the end of all days, the only parts of life that will have counted for anything are those that are ‘in their proper place before God'. That all the rest is just garbage – wasted time – trash – fit only to go up in smoke.

Apply such a concept to the whole of life and the implications become mind boggling!

PRAYER
Lord, You know I have to admit it. I do spend time on stuff I shouldn’t waste my time with. I remember that scripture which talks of focusing on that which is good and right and pure and noble.  Help me to welcome the ‘true’ in my life and get rid of the ‘trash’. Help me clean out the house of my soul. AMEN.

Friday, December 12, 2014

DAY THIRTEEN – Luke 1: 67-69 – Zechariah’s Prophecy

And his father Zechariah was filled with the Holy Spirit, and prophesied, saying,  "Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for He has visited and redeemed His people, and has raised up a horn of salvation for us in the house of his servant David,  as He spoke by the mouth of His holy prophets from of old,  that we should be saved from our enemies, and from the hand of all who hate us;  to perform the mercy promised to our fathers, and to remember His holy covenant,  the oath which He swore to our father Abraham,  to grant us that we, being delivered from the hand of our enemies, might serve Him without fear,  in holiness and righteousness before Him all the days of our life.  And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare His ways,  to give knowledge of salvation to His people in the forgiveness of their sins,  through the tender mercy of our God, when the day shall dawn upon us from on high to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace."

Zechariah’s joyful, prophetic song falls into the category of ‘Songs which thank God for what God is going to do, but hasn’t actually done yet.” The song reflects on the huge flow of Old Testament promise – from redemption in Egypt to the establishment of the Royal line of David – from the covenants of Abraham and Moses to the promises of Grace given to the prophets.

To give it some contemporary parallel the song declares, “Baby, You ain’t seen nothing yet!” Why? Because Zechariah’s little boy was going to … (in Chuck Berry’s words)... ‘Go – Go – Johnny Be Good’.

There are times when the spiritual journey can seem ponderous and we become stuck in the mud of our own consistency. At such times it can be an encouragement to take some time out to joyfully consider, not only where we have been, but where the journey may be heading.

To do so is to see how God has already done so much, in comparison to what God needs to do in our own rather insignificant journey. Considering our personal spiritual walk against the whole backdrop of salvation history gives us a different perspective on things, a perspective that can move us forward.

Turning water into wine – Feeding 5000 – Calming Storms – Walking on Water. Hey! That’s just a few of the things Jesus did during the short duration of his earthly ministry. Go back and reflect on the whole drama of Israel’s journey through the centuries spanned by the Old Testament.

Consider such things – and the possibilities – well… no… the probabilities... of God helping us along our own spiritual journey become immensely multiplied. So today... sing a looking forward song and get a little positive. God can do it... because God is good all the time... ‘All the Time… God is good!’ Thank God for what God is going to do! You ain’t seen nothing yet… Go… Go Pilgrim... Go :-)

PRAYER
Lord, when I become bogged down help me to be encouraged by the way You have helped whole nations along their road in the past. If You can do that, then I know You can move me further along the road. Thank You for what You are going to do!  AMEN.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

DAY TWELVE – Luke 1: 57-66 – John’s Birth

Now the time came for Elizabeth to be delivered, and she gave birth to a son.  And her neighbors and kinsfolk heard that the Lord had shown great mercy to her, and they rejoiced with her.  And on the eighth day they came to circumcise the child; and they would have named him Zechariah after his father, but his mother said, "Not so; he shall be called John."  And they said to her, "None of your kindred is called by this name."  And they made signs to his father, inquiring what he would have him called.  And he asked for a writing tablet, and wrote, "His name is John." And they all marveled.  And immediately his mouth was opened and his tongue loosed, and he spoke, blessing God.  And fear came on all their neighbors. And all these things were talked about through all the hill country of Judea;  and all who heard them laid them up in their hearts, saying, "What then will this child be?" For the hand of the Lord was with him.

When John was born – there was no stable - no angelic announcements - no shepherds or wise men to greet him. Thankfully neither was there a murderous king on the scene that forced his family to become refugees, nor the tragedy of murdered children. There was, however, still a sense that he would be no ordinary child but that “the hand of the Lord was with him” (verse 66).

This passage describes the atmosphere of expectancy surrounding his birth, the sudden restoration of Zechariah’s speech, and the way John received his name. These were events that evoked a reverent fear amongst the family and neighbors and caused much tongue wagging throughout the whole hill country.

I suspect that few of us would want to arrive in the world with such a weight of destiny pressing down on our shoulders. It’s one thing to acknowledge that we are all chosen to be children of God, but the thought that you might be chosen for a specific – world shattering task – well, that would be enough to send any of us off into the desert to survive on a diet of locusts and honey!

Consider some of the lives of the Old Testament giants. Noah disgraced himself not long after the Ark reached solid ground. Abraham told lies about his wife to save his own skin. David had a disastrous affair with Bathsheba that involved the murder of her husband. Solomon, much praised for his wisdom and the building of the temple, left behind him a kingdom that was in pieces and financially ruined. We could mention so many others, Gideon.. Samson… really rather a sorry list.

So… .next time you are singing a hymn such as “Here I am, Lord, is it I Lord?” treat the words with a healthy dose of respect and maybe a touch of apprehension. What if God were to say…. ‘Yes. You are the one. I have a tremendously difficult job for which you were chosen for from the foundation of the world. It will be more than you can handle, and you are going to end up making some drastic mistakes. But ...my grace will be sufficient in the end.’

The remarkable thing about John was that he DID remain faithful and did not succumb to the kind of temptations that some of those Old Testament characters fell prey to. Jesus was later to describe John as the greatest of the prophets. (See Luke 7:28).

To have life chosen by God to achieve great things is to be placed in a position of awesome responsibility. To most of us, who suffer from the disposition known as sin – evidenced in our lives through our ability to choose our way instead of God’s –  God’s choosing can be a scary thought. John can remind us – GRACE IS GREATER THAN SIN!

PRAYER : Lord, when we realize the responsibility that being chosen to serve You places on us, it could cause us to run away... like Jonah did. Thank You that Your servant John reminds us that it is possible to serve You without suffering a breakdown! We may not be called to quite such earth shattering tasks as he was, but You do call us and Your grace is sufficient to see us through. AMEN
.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

DAY ELEVEN – Luke 1: 5-25 – Zechariah and Gabriel

 In the days of Herod, king of Judea, there was a priest named Zechariah, of the division of Abijah; and he had a wife of the daughters of Aaron, and her name was Elizabeth. And they were both righteous before God, walking in all the commandments and ordinances of the Lord blameless.  But they had no child, because Elizabeth was barren, and both were advanced in years. 

Now while he was serving as priest before God when his division was on duty,  according to the custom of the priesthood, it fell to him by lot to enter the temple of the Lord and burn incense. And the whole multitude of the people were praying outside at the hour of incense. 

 And there appeared to him an angel of the Lord standing on the right side of the altar of incense.  And Zechariah was troubled when he saw him, and fear fell upon him. But the angel said to him, "Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer is heard, and your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you shall call his name John. And you will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth;  for he will be great before the Lord, and he shall drink no wine nor strong drink, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit, even from his mother's womb.  And he will turn many of the sons of Israel to the Lord their God, and he will go before him in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, to make ready for the Lord a people prepared."  

And Zechariah said to the angel, "How shall I know this? For I am an old man, and my wife is advanced in years." And the angel answered him, "I am Gabriel, who stand in the presence of God; and I was sent to speak to you, and to bring you this good news And behold, you will be silent and unable to speak until the day that these things come to pass, because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled in their time." And the people were waiting for Zechariah, and they wondered at his delay in the temple. 

And when he came out, he could not speak to them, and they perceived that he had seen a vision in the temple; and he made signs to them and remained dumb.  And when his time of service was ended, he went to his home. After these days his wife Elizabeth conceived, and for five months she hid herself, saying,  "Thus the Lord has done to me in the days when he looked on me, to take away my reproach among men."

Mark’s gospel begins with John’s preaching, but Luke goes further back and starts with the unusual circumstances of John’s birth. John’s father, a priest by the name of Zechariah, is doing his religious duty when out of nowhere his day is interrupted by unexpected encounter with an angel. This angel identifies himself as Gabriel.

The angel brings a word of promise. That like Abraham’s wife Sarah, his wife Elizabeth, would bear a child in her old age. This child, a boy, will be endowed with the ‘Spirit of Elijah’ - and would prepare people for the coming of the Lord.

The encounter leaves Zechariah speechless. I imagine that such an encounter in the midst of a normal working day would leave most of us struggling for words! However, Zechariah’s speech impediment is no natural reaction but due to God’s action – an action partly prompted by Zechariahs unbelief. Zechariah is more than a little surprised that the God of the universe should involve him and his wife, in such a personal way, in the fulfillment of ancient prophecies.

All of which can teach us that there are times when – in the face of God’s activity – saying ‘nothing’ can achieve far more than any words try and offer. That there are times when words reveal more about what we find hard to believe, than what we put our faith in.

I suspect that there are times when God calls us to ‘think big’ (in terms of our commitment to the kingdom – and where it could lead us), but we have managed to talk ourselves out of such lofty flights of fancy, preferring our own advice and the words of others to what God has to offer.

There are times when being struck dumb would be to our advantage. As the book of James elsewhere complains – ‘Who can control the tongue?’ No doubt Zechariah would wish to respond, ‘Thankfully – God can!’

PRAYER
Lord, there are times when our words start to flow quicker than our faith can keep up with. When things come along that take us by surprise, it is so easy to run our mouth rather than store up treasure in our heart. Help us today to be careful with our words. AMEN.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

DAY TEN – Mark 1:1-8 – John the Baptist

 The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.  As it is written in Isaiah the prophet, "Behold, I send my messenger before thy face, who shall prepare thy way;  the voice of one crying in the wilderness: Prepare the way of the Lord, make His paths straight -- " John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.  And there went out to him all the country of Judea, and all the people of Jerusalem; and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. Now John was clothed with camel's hair, and had a leather girdle around his waist, and ate locusts and wild honey.  And he preached, saying, "After me comes He who is mightier than I, the thong of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie. I have baptized you with water; but He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit."

The first verse of Mark’s gospel declares ‘The beginning of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God’. The story that Mark tells does not begin with the birth of Jesus, but with John the Baptist’s appearance from the desert, announcing that people should get ready, because One who was greater than he was, One who would baptize with the Holy Spirit rather than water, was about to arrive.

Some may argue that the spiritual journey begins only when we reach the point of religious conversion or come to a confession of faith that we symbolize through baptism or confirmation. Yet as I look back on my own life I glimpse moments when I was aware of God, long before I would describe myself as having any kind of commitment to discipleship of Jesus Christ.

The words of a song - a glimpse of some beauty in nature - a new insight that left you feeling that there was more to life than just the material world – could these be God’s call for us to ‘Get Ready’? Such words of God, come from the wilderness, and call us take seriously our commitment to Jesus Christ. For many of us it seems that our spiritual journey began long before we were even aware of it!

I suppose a lot depends on our response. The basic meaning of ‘repent’ is ‘to turn’. How do we respond to these ‘voices from the wilderness’? We can allow such moments to turn us towards God or we can just turn and walk the other way. Amongst those who came to hear John Baptist were both those who prepared themselves and those who chose to walk on by.

Maybe that’s why Mark chose John’s appearance as the start of his gospel. We read; and then we have to decide how we are going to respond.

PRAYER
Lord, long ago on the banks of the River Jordan came John the Baptist, proclaiming that we should prepare ourselves for the Kingdom to come. We hear his message that calls us to repentance. Help us today to turn our lives in a Christ centered direction. AMEN.

Monday, December 8, 2014

DAY NINE – Matthew 2: 11 – Myrrh


Going into the house they (the wise men) saw the child with Mary His mother, and they fell down and worshiped Him. Then, opening their treasures, they offered Him gifts, gold and frankincense and myrrh.



Like frankincense, myrrh was an expensive perfume. Whilst Frankincense had to be burnt to give up its odor, myrrh had to be beaten and crushed before it would give off its fragrance.

Myrrh was one of the ingredients that went into the oil that was used to anoint the altars where offerings were made and the golden lamp stand. It was only after they had been anointed with sacred oil that they were considered as being set apart for a holy purpose. The same oil was used to anoint the priests for their tasks.

Myrrh was one of the ingredients with which the body of Jesus was treated by Nicodemus and Joseph after His death on the cross. We read in Marks gospel that before they crucified Him, "They offered Him wine, mixed with myrrh, but He did not take it".

When Mary poured oil over Jesus feet at the house of Lazarus, she used nard, a very similar spice to myrrh. That action was described by Jesus as being an anointing for the day of His burial. Judas Iscariot complained, ‘Why waste that stuff, the perfume could be sold and the money given to the poor’. (The perfume cost nearly a year's wage). The irony in his words was that he later sold Jesus for a mere thirty pieces of silver.

In the book of Revelation, the second of seven letters to the churches is addressed to the suffering church at Smyrna. The name of the town of Smyrna has its linguistic root in the word ‘Myrrh’. The letter is an encouraging one to a church whose members were being crushed.

At a later date, one of Smyrna's bishops was a man called Polycarp. A writing that was extremely influential in the early church was the account of his martyrdom in the arena, an event that caused many in that region to take the Christian faith seriously.

Many times in church history, it has been when the church, like myrrh, has been beaten and crushed, that it has produced some of its most effective witness. This caused one church historian to write, ‘The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.’

With the benefit of hindsight we can see how appropriate it was that one of the wise gifts bought to Jesus was that of myrrh, a gift for One who would give His life in an offering of sacrifice, One who was anointed of God for an incomparable task.

PRAYER
"Myrrh is mine, its bitter perfume
Breathes a life of gathering gloom,
Sorrowing, sighing, bleeding, dying,
Sealed in the stone cold tomb."
AMEN.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

DAY EIGHT – Matthew 2: 11 – Frankincense

Going into the house they (the wise men) saw the child with Mary His mother, and they fell down and worshiped Him. Then, opening their treasures, they offered Him gifts, gold and frankincense...

Frankincense is made of Olibanum, an aromatic gum resin secreted as a milky-white substance by certain species of trees. After ‘Resin canals’ are cut into the bark, the gum comes out as transparent beads, which, once congealed and pressed into cylinder shaped yellowish pieces, are ground into a powder. The highest quality Frankincense is that which has come from the clearest gum and makes the whitest powder. The name in Hebrew for Frankincense ‘Lebona’ means ‘White or Shining’.

The Frankincense powder is burnt and provides a pleasant, penetrating odor (similar to balsam). It was used, not only by the Israelites but by other religions as well, as ritual incense at various festivals and religious occasions.

In the book of Leviticus five offerings are outlined that the people of Israel were to make to God. Frankincense was used in connection with the ‘Meal Offering’.  It was a voluntary offering, a gift made to God to maintain God’s favor.

If you cook meat or flour in oil, it doesn't give off a particularly sweet smelling odor. But when frankincense was added, that changed things. The Frankincense released a strong smell that overcame all the other odors. (I wonder why no one has ever invented frankincense socks? Just think of the service they would provide to wash baskets throughout the universe!)

Frankincense is an offering connected with prayer and praise to God. The Frankincense that we are called to give God is the offering of prayer and praise.  As believers in Christ we make our prayers and praise in Jesus name, for we believe He is the great High Priest who gave His life as an offering for sin.

Frankincense symbolizes prayer and devotion. If our lives are to be an effective witness for Christ then those strands of spirituality must be woven into them. The most prayerful life in the New Testament is that of Jesus Himself.

Yet in order for Frankincense to be used as an offering it had to be burnt. We use the expression about somebody who is excited about something, that they are all ‘fired up’. So we also need the fire of God's Spirit to burn in our hearts, if we are to live lives of prayer and worship to God.

PRAYER
"Frankincense to offer have I ,
Incense owns a Deity nigh;
Prayer and praising, all men raising,
Worship Him, God on high."
AMEN.

Saturday, December 6, 2014

DAY SEVEN – Matthew 2: 11 – Gold

Going into the house they (the wise men) saw the child with Mary His mother, and they fell down and worshiped Him. Then, opening their treasures, they offered Him gifts, gold …..

Upon each of my hands, I proudly wear a gold ring. The ring is precious. It is made of gold. It’s true value lies in what it signifies. I say that because I've also got three gold teeth in my mouth and whilst I'm sure the gold in my mouth is as materially valuable as that on my finger, one signifies the lack of care I've shown to dental hygiene, the other the gift and commitment of love that my wife made to me when we were married.

It's the significance of the gold and the ring that makes it precious. Gold represents a commitment of life. Gold represents love.

In the Old Testament Tabernacle the most precious ornament was the lamp stand or candlestick. According to the instructions Moses had from God, he instructed the workmen that the candlestick was to be made only from the purest gold. It was to be the light that illuminated the Holy Place.

In the tabernacle of Moses there was first of all a large outer court, then at the far end, the inner court, the Holy place. Beyond that was the ‘Holy of Holies’, where only once a year an anointed priest was to sacrifice offerings to God. The light was for that Holy place.

Bearing the light was a pure gold lamp stand. Upon the lamp stand were carved symbols of the love and care of God towards God’s people. Pomegranates symbolizing God’s peace, Calyx's (the outer envelope of a flower) to symbolize God's protection, flowers to symbolize the beauty of holiness - all carved out of pure gold.

By these constructions of purest gold the people were not only reminded that God gave of His best to them, but also that they were to give of their best to God. Surely it should be the same in our walk with God. We give it our best shot – because God has given us the best of God’s love in Jesus Christ.

Wise men brought gold.

PRAYER
"Born a King on Bethlehem plain
Gold I bring to crown Him again
King for ever, ceasing never
Over us all to reign."

Friday, December 5, 2014

DAY SIX – Matthew 2: 16-18 – Innocence Lost

Then Herod, when he saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, was in a furious rage, and he sent and killed all the male children in Bethlehem and in all that region who were two years old or under, according to the time which he had ascertained from the wise men.  Then was fulfilled what was spoken by the prophet Jeremiah:  "A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they were no more."

We often talk of Christmas as a time for children. Yet one of the most disturbing stories associated with the coming of Jesus is that of unwarranted violence against children at the hands of King Herod. To placate his rage against the Wise Men, who have fled from the region because they realized he was a man of evil intentions, King Herod organizes the slaughter of all male children in the Bethlehem region who are aged two or under.

Such is the depth of his fear for his political position that he considers such an act necessary following rumors of a new King having born. A ghastly fulfillment of Jeremiah’s prophecy, ‘Rachel weeping for her children, she refuses to be consoled, for they are no more’ is enacted.

Stories of child abductions and abuse regularly fill our news – and they sicken us. The loss to a family of a single child has a devastating effect upon them and their neighbors.  It is hard to imagine the depth of sadness and despair occasioned when a government chooses to enact a policy of whole scale murder against all the children of a community under two years of age. Yet such is the scenario presented to us in the Christmas story.  As we have said, the coming of Jesus was not only greeted with joy, but also with violence. There truly is a dark side to the Christmas story.

It still goes on our world. We describe it with different terms. ‘Ethnic Cleansing’. ‘Dealing with the problem of Street Children’. ‘Human Trafficking’. Such evil is hard to contemplate. It goes beyond what we can explain. It causes us to question how a God of Love can permit such things. 

Yet this is also a part of the journey.
Asking the hard questions and not receiving any clear answers.

PRAYER Lord, Sometimes I feel like shaking my fists at the heavens and screaming ‘How could You allow such madness to be in Your world?’ The reply is deafening by it’s silence.  Remind me that the pain was there at the first Christmas, as much as it is today. Even though I have no answers as to why, help me be one of those who seeks to make things change for the better.  AMEN.

Thursday, December 4, 2014

DAY FIVE – Matthew 2 :13-15 – Flight to Egypt

Now when they had departed, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, "Rise, take the child and His mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there till I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him."  And he rose and took the child and His mother by night, and departed to Egypt,  and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet, "Out of Egypt have I called my Son."

There is a side to Christmas that we usually choose to ignore. A dark side. The fact that the birth of the Messiah was not only greeted with joy, but also with violence. King Herod, fearful for his fragile political position, wishes to destroy any possible threat to his power. Strangers came with news of a new King having born, in the midst of his rule. Such rumors had to be squashed before they got out of control. 

Through a dream Joseph becomes aware of the Kings murderous intentions towards the child. The family flee for their lives, back to Egypt, the land of the Israelites slavery and oppression – ironically the land from which they were delivered by the hand of Moses.

According to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs the number of refugees globally is around 12 million.  2000 years after Christ’s birth people around the world are still fleeing from oppressive regimes like that of King Herod. As we sit down as families in each others homes, it is a sobering thought that many are forced to be far from their homes due to the religion and politics of their fellow human beings.

The light at the end of the tunnel appeared for Joseph when Herod died and the family could return home. Yet for many in our world such a light is yet to shine and they will remain displaced and at the mercy of the changing climate of hospitality in the lands to which they have fled.

Any spiritual journey that blocks out the dark side is a journey into fantasy. God draws us close because God is a God of justice and mercy and One who challenges us to exhibit justice in the actions of our lives.

Next time you see on the news some truck load of immigrants – or hear of some forcibly repatriated family – don’t dismiss them as nameless faces. Recall that the family of Jesus had to flee from persecution – and offer a prayer.

PRAYER Lord, I don’t remember talking about the violence of Christmas. This talk of persecution and suffering and refugees disturbs our calm. Help us to embrace values of justice and mercy as equally valid signs of spirituality as are prayer and Scripture reading. May the words of our mouths and the actions of our lives be acceptable in Your sight. AMEN.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

DAY FOUR – Matthew 2 :1-10 – Wise Guys

Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, saying,  "Where is He who has been born king of the Jews? For we have seen His star in the East, and have come to worship Him."  When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him;  and assembling all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Christ was to be born. 

They told him, "In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it is written by the prophet: `And you, O Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who will govern my people Israel.'"  Then Herod summoned the wise men secretly and ascertained from them what time the star appeared;  and he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, "Go and search diligently for the child, and when you have found Him bring me word, that I too may come and worship Him."  

When they had heard the king they went their way; and lo, the star which they had seen in the East went before them, till it came to rest over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy.

Three wise men following a star make a regular appearance in nativity plays around the globe. There probably weren’t only three of them, the chances are they rode horses rather than camels, and they must have appeared quite a while after the shepherds - but why ruin a good story with the facts? They are a part of what we know as the Christmas story – and, I believe, an important part.

What always strikes me about their story is that for most of their journey there was no star to follow. Verse 9 speaks of the star “Which they had seen in the East”. ‘Star’ - in the past tense.

One presumes therefore that the bulk of their journey was navigated through their reasoning rather than their star-gazing. This was not three wise guys with their heads in the clouds heading out on some random road trip. It was a journey they were applying their minds to.

The spiritual journey is not an aimless drift that leads us from one thing to the next. It’s not about reading our stars or making sure our actions are in line with any celestial bodies. It’s not about checking out all the possible religious option that are out there – and then deciding to commit to none of them. It involves taking logical and disciplined steps that direct us towards specific goals.

A bible reading plan. A time of the day for regular prayer. A spiritual routine. Keeping a journal. Habitual attendance at worship services. Consistent Stewardship. Such disciplines as these direct our path in ways that star gazing never can.

Such logical, reasoned steps may not have the magical appeal of gazing up at the skies and allowing life to lead us wherever the wind may blow. But for many of us, for most of the time, there are no stars that guide, and the wind serves more to refresh us, than drive us along.

PRAYER. Lord, it would be so romantic to be able to look up to the sky and have our lives driven along by some celestial confrontations out there in the cosmos. Those stars sure do look pretty! But – hello – earth calling. You have given us a mind. We can think things through. We have the Scriptures. There are things that we can commit to. There are positive, logical steps we can make that draw us in Your direction. Help us to make them. AMEN.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

DAY THREE – Luke 2:36-38 – Anna

And there was a prophetess, Anna, the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher; she was of a great age, having lived with her husband seven years from her virginity, and as a widow till she was eighty-four. She did not depart from the temple, worshiping with fasting and prayer night and day.  And coming up at that very hour she gave thanks to God, and spoke of Him to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem.

Simeon was old. Anna was even older. She’d been married seven years – then her husband had died. She’d been a widow for eighty four years. Let us – for arguments sake – say she married young – at thirteen (not uncommon in those days). That still makes her at least 104 years old. The majority of those years were filled with the disciplines of fasting alongside night and day prayer. She never leaves the temple.

Not only is her age more impressive than Simeon’s, but also her diligence. Unlike Simeon we are never told that Anna has been given a particular vision by God that she is waiting to see fulfilled. We don’t know if she was expecting the Messiah to arrive during her lifetime or not. All we know is that she was incredibly faithful to her God.

You could argue that Simeon’s faith stemmed from having something to be faithful about. Not so Anna. She had the sort of spiritual journey that didn’t go looking for signs, but just got on with the job. I sense that at times we are called to follow a similar road in our spiritual journeys. To follow Christ – not because it’s going to lead us to anything specific – nor because we are promised a special blessing somewhere along the way – but simply because it’s the faithful thing to do. Jesus calls us. So we follow.

In Anna’s case… well along the road… God suddenly jumped a surprise on her. She wasn’t looking for it. She wasn’t expecting it. But – wow –  she was excited when it happened. As one translation puts it, “She broke into an anthem of praise to God, and talked about the child to all who were waiting expectantly for the freeing of Jerusalem”. (The Message).

Be faithful.. and we never know… God may just have some surprises for us. A new insight. A chance meeting. An unanticipated blessing. A gentle reassurance that all is well. A ray of light in a time of a darkness. We can’t say what it might be. If we could... it would hardly be unexpected.

Our calling is not to look for signs but to keep the faith.

PRAYER. Lord, sometimes we feel that following You would be a whole lot easier if we had billboards guiding us every step of the way.  Probably not. We’d probably still miss them when our heads were looking the other way. Help us to follow You as best as we know how, not because there are great things in store for us further down the road, but simply because we are Your people who seek to be faithful. AMEN.

Monday, December 1, 2014

DAY TWO – Luke 2:22-35 – Simeon

And when the time came for their purification according to the law of Moses, they brought Him up to Jerusalem to present Him to the Lord  (as it is written in the law of the Lord, "Every male that opens the womb shall be called holy to the Lord")  and to offer a sacrifice according to what is said in the law of the Lord, "a pair of turtledoves, or two young pigeons."
  
Now there was a man in Jerusalem, whose name was Simeon, and this man was righteous and devout, looking for the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was upon him.  And it had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he should not see death before he had seen the Lord's Christ. And inspired by the Spirit he came into the temple; and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for Him according to the custom of the law,  he took Him up in his arms and blessed God and said,  "Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace, according to thy word;  for mine eyes have seen thy salvation  which thou hast prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and for glory to thy people Israel." 

And His father and His mother marveled at what was said about Him;  and Simeon blessed them and said to Mary His mother, "Behold, this child is set for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign that is spoken against (and a sword will pierce through your own soul also), that thoughts out of many hearts may be revealed."

Simeon achieved a state of spiritual maturity that most of us can only dream of. His life was marked by a spiritual trait that is often lacking in our quick-fix throw-away culture. Consistency. The Scriptures speak of him as one who throughout his long life had been watching and waiting and believing the promises of God. Through the Holy Spirit, God had birthed in him one particular conviction – that before he died he would see the Messiah of the Lord.

As the years rolled by there must surely have been those who started to regard him as nothing more than a deluded old man. Where was this promised one he had waited all his life for?

Spiritual growth can sometimes seem so painstakingly slow. We make the same mistakes and lapses of judgment time and time again. We are startled by our own inconsistency. We may well lose patience with ourselves and conclude that we are just not the kind of person to make spiritual journeys.

Simoen reminds us that the spiritual journey is a life long commitment that may not produce any results until much further down the road than it‘s point of embarkation. As the days roll by the journey may become harder, rather than easier.

Yet… the promise remains. Jesus did come to Simeon. A life time of seeking was not a wasted life.

PRAYER. Lord, the inconsistency of our spiritual walk can trouble us. We are not like the confident saints of old.  We search for the quick fix and the easy answers. Remind us that the spiritual journey takes a life-time. Grant to us the gift of patience. AMEN.